Armando Iannucci’s new film The Death of Stalin has a lot in common with his famous TV series The Thick of It, exploring the ridiculousness of politicians and their plots, but on a whole other, much darker level.
Set in Russian in 1953, the film takes place over roughly a week, as the the close group around Stalin panic, plot and scheme after his sudden death. After dropping dead from a heart attack, it takes almost 12 hours for anyone to acknowledge the death of their feted leader, with everyone reassuring each other that he’s ‘just feeling a bit unwell’. It is in this opening twenty minutes that Iannucci introduces us to the cast of characters that will be instrumental throughout the film. As this is set during a very real historical period, it is not enough to let the characters gradually introduce themselves through the action. Instead Iannucci choses to use a freeze frame as each character appears in the action, with caption showing their name and position within the government.
Not only does this help with understanding the fairly large principle cast, it also helps with the wealth of Russian names that you need to remember. It’s never completely confusing, but it does help at the beginning to remember who sides with who.
And the cast is something that definitely needs a mention here. Steve Buscemi is brilliant as the Malcolm Tucker-esqe Nikita Kruschev, scheming and (obviously) winning his place at the top, and Jeffery Tambor, who plays the initial successor, yet incredibly naive Georgy Malenkov is great as well. But in all honesty, while the vast majority of the cast are in part, playing for laughs – dark laughs, but laughs nevertheless – Simon Russell Beale, as the NKVD chief, spymaster and all round dirt bag, is truly terrifying. He revels in the torture, rape and murder of the “suspect elements” of the Soviet Union, and while the film does not go into any kind of explicit detail or depiction of these events, the very hint of them makes it all the worse. Michael Palin and Jason Isaacs too deserve a mention for their portrayals of Vyacheslav Molotov and Georgy Zuhkov respectively, especially Isaacs, as he plays the Red Army General as a no nonsense force with a Yorkshire accent.
If the rest of the film is pretty dark, the scenes immediately after Stalin drops dead are probably the most slapstick in the film. There are a succession of ministers accidentally kneeling the “puddle of indignity” next to Stalin as they try to manoeuvre the body into the next room. But the film has it all, slapstick, sight gags, the hilarity of the major members of the Soviet Union trying desperately to seize power without looking like they are.
It’s a dark, clever film, perhaps not exactly to everyone’s taste in it’s relatively slow place, with the action only happening with the rough period of week, but if you like any of Iannucci’s preivious work you’ll most likely loving it. Plus, it’s also a good starting point to discovering a period of history that you might not have heard of before.